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on 21 April 2006
Nobody knows the truth about King Arthur. What Cornwell presents here is an historically plausible version of the familiar tales. He's stripped away all the romanticised, magical, mediaeval nonsense. In its place he's given us the story of a warlord struggling to unite the British kingdoms in the wake of the collapse of Roman rule in the face of invasion by the English and the Saxons, and the growing influence of a middle-eastern cult called Christianity. The charactersisation is well-rounded and the evocation of time and place is stunning. Many of the characters and battles refer to real people and events documented in Dark Ages history. Most of the usual Arthurian characters and episodes are present, but re-told within this pre-English British context, e.g. there is no hunt for the Holy Grail, but there is a search for a mystical, Druidic cauldron. Good quality writing, great adventures and a great study of leadership and national identity. The other two books in the series are equally strong, and are highly recommended too.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 August 2012
This is the first volume of the Warlord Chronicles, written by Derfel, an old monk in what is now Wales. It tells the story of one Arthur, of his efforts to defend Britain, and of his companions among which was one Lord Derfel. For me (and, it seems, for many others), this book and its sequels are among the very best historical fiction that you can find. Together with Gates of Fire, it is certainly among my Top Five. This is because, while the topic of Arthur is hardly original, it is dealt with in such a way that he and his times come to life and seem plausible, even if we know very little about the character and his times.

Essentially, this book has the three main ingredients that make it into a masterpiece of historical fiction.

One is the historical context, with the story taking place during the end of the fifth century, after the departure of Rome and the Fall of the (Western) Empire. There are multiple references throughout the book to Roman remains, Roman villas, whether derelict and in ruins, or patched up as well as people could, to Roman arms and warfare, to their roads and to Roman towns in Britain, which are mostly named by their Latin names. The descriptions give an impression of decay and progressive breakdown, with the Romano-Breton kingdoms fighting a losing battle against the "Saxon tide" and between themselves, after having already lost the eastern part of the country (Lloegyr - the Lost Lands) and London. Another historically plausible feature is the author's choice for small numbers for all of the armies and battles: hundreds or, at most, a couple of thousands on either side for the largest encounters, and scores or at most a couple of hundred for Arthur's feared heavy cavalry (of the cataphract type, it seems, with the horse being also protected by leather armour). The Britain's economy had previously largely depended on the Roman army (internal demand) and on exports to the rest of the Empire for its wealth. The army's withdrawal, the breakdown in long-distance trading and the Empire's Fall meant that Britain's economy was hit particularly hard, with its population becoming impoverished. So the low numbers for the "armies" of warriors 8war bands would be a more accurate term) are all the more plausible.

Another set of ingredients is originality. There are many examples of this spread across the book, despite the fact that the topic of Arthur is anything but an original one. So Arthur is cast in this book as Uther's bastard son, sworn to protect his new born baby half-brother Mordred (the Winter King), as their father dies. For instance, you have Arthur's help to Ban of Benoïc, on the Kings of Britanny with his capital set at Ynys Trebes (modern Mont Saint Michel). Historically, Britain and Armorica did have very close ties and many British would immigrate to Armorica latter on, after Arthur's death. Also, a British warlord and his troops did apparently come to the aid of Gaul and fight the Germanic invaders for a time, although these were Wisigoths rather than Franks. Other interesting twists include the character of Lancelot, not exactly portrayed as the usual shining hero or that of the ambitious Guinevere and her worshiping of Isis.

The third ingredient, and perhaps the most important of all, is the characterization. This is probably the most difficult to achieve in a novel, judging by the number of historical novels nowadays with flat and unconvincing characters. In this book, the characters are carefully drawn, even those of secondary characters that get killed early on in the book, such as Owain. The most elaborate ones are probably those of Arthur himself, seen through the eyes of Derfel across the whole book, and that of Derfel himself. Both are particularly interesting because they are human and have failings. They are not the sort of carboard "super-heroes" that have become quite common in other novels that portray themselves as "historical".

Add to that a precious little "who's who" at the beginning of the book, together with a map, and you will quickly find out why I consider this book to be one of the very few Rolls Royce's of historical fiction. Easily worth five stars because this book has got it all right...
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on 27 February 1999
The Romans have left Britain, and the long dark night begins to cover the land... this is historical fiction as it should be written...dark, bloody, funny at times, with characters that you actually care about. Arthurian novels really are ten a penny these days and Bernard Cornwell must have been very aware of this fact when he opted to write a trilogy based upon the legends. What he has done is to go back to the original Dark Age and craft a Britain set during the twilight days of paganism, as the Christians begin to make themselves heard, as the warring tribes strive to hold back the Saxons from their lands, as the Roman technology begins to crumble, rust, and be forgotten. In doing so, he has written the only Arthurian books worth reading, outside of Robert Nye's classic 'Merlin'. The subtleties within this book, and the trilogy overall, are marvellous... is this a fantasy novel? Well, there's plenty of magick, but it's of a psychological nature... you're never quite sure whether magick actually works... certainly the characters believe it does, but there's always a rational explanation for any effect, in addition to a supernatural one. The first book of the series sets the scene, introduces the characters and allows Arthur to make his initial mistakes, the repercussions of which will dog him until the bitter end. The key to the series is realism. Battles are fought with shield walls of frightened men who need to get drunk before they have the courage to charge. There is mud, and there is rain, and there is the slight glimmer of hope that Arthur's plans really will build a better Britain.... And then it all goes horribly wrong... These are real people, with real emotions, not the stock, cardboard clichés of nearly all Fantasy novels these days. The Winter King is an exhilarating start to a classic series. If you have any interest in Fantasy and/or the Dark Age period, this really is about as good as it gets.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 September 2006
Bernard Cornwell is one of that rare breed of authors who are able to write convincingly on a broad range of subjects. Present day thrillers, the Sharpe novels about riflemen in the days of the Duke of Wellington, even an ancient historical novel about Stonehenge and it doesn't come much more ancient than that. His more recent novels have been about the Saxons and very good they are too. But I think that the trilogy he has written about the Arthurian legends are certainly among the best, if not the best of his novels.

The legends of King Arthur hold a magical attraction for many people, myself included and I enjoy reading about them very much. The tales of Arthur and his knights of the round table riding about in full and shining armour are of course a total nonsense and a more or less modern day depiction of Arthur. Suits of armour were not even invented until several hundred years after Arthur's death, if indeed he existed at all. But if he did it would be more around the time in which the Winter King is set.

Mr. Cornwell puts a more realistic slant on the existence of Arthur in or around the sixth century, and the author himself believes that Arthur was some sort of war chief rather than a king.

The book begins after the death of Uther Pendragon, an event that has left Britain in turmoil. Britain needs a strong hand to keep the squabbling tribes of Britain from one another's throats. Can he hold Uther's throne for the infant heir . . .
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on 31 December 2012
I have all the Sharpe novels and Azincourt. I like Cornwell's style and pace. Azincourt has become the annual Christmas holiday read so I looked forward to this first of three Arthurian novels. Sadly it has proved to be a let-down. It is a very slow burn and one waits and waits for Arthur to appear. The main problem centres on the names (both personal and geographic). No problem with Arthur, Ygraine, Mordred and Merlin but the others! Wholly unfamiliar names meant that I was frequently referring to the list of characters to remind myself who a person was or where the action was taking place. The book lacks pace. There is the suspicion of padding-out and the eye starts to skip. When (finally) war comes then the book comes to life but it is all a bit late in the day. Unlike Azincourt I cannot foresee myself reading this book again. I hope the other two books in the set are better.
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on 22 February 2002
"The Winter King" is the high point of Cornwell's writing. From the gruesome battle scenes at Benoic to the spirit-strewn Isle of the Dead, the book is vivid in detail and leaves the reader feeling as though they have lived the myth. In my opinion the characters are the most compelling factor of the novel. Arthur, the noble warlord with visions of a united Britain. Derfel, a Pagan spearman who narrates. Nimue, the fiery and, at times, slightly disturbing priestess. Lancelot, the conceited, self-appointed 'warrior'. Guninevere, the strong-willed wife of Arthur who must be surrounded by beautiful things. Mordred, the maimed babe edling who has Dumnonia's future on his tiny shoulders. And the enemies are just as intriguing. The bloody Saxons; the evil Gundleus; the viscious Franks. The battle scenes are truly terrifying and prayed on my mind for days afterwards. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I heard about the next books in the trilogy - "Enemy of God" and then "Excalibur". I have great faith in them both.
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on 2 December 2004
Cornwell's Arthur saga is a new touch to the old legends and lore about perhaps the most famous king of all times. It is a wondrous thing that we "know" so much about him, when we cannot even say for certain that he ever existed.
Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin, Hector, Gawain; Galahad and many more familiar names turn up, only perhaps not as you would be used to seeing them. Lancelot is a snob, a coward and a generally disliked figure, Guinevere a heathen priestess.

Arthur is the strong, seemingly invincible warlord, strong in action but insecure in life.

The book grew on me and I ploughed through it and eagerly awaited the sequels.
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Bernard Cornwell is one of that rare breed of authors who are able to write convincingly on a broad range of subjects. Present day thrillers, the Sharpe novels about riflemen in the days of the Duke of Wellington, even an ancient historical novel about Stonehenge and it doesn't come much more ancient than that. His more recent novels have been about the Saxons and very good they are too. But I think that the trilogy he has written about the Arthurian legends are certainly among the best, if not the best of his novels.

The legends of King Arthur hold a magical attraction for many people, myself included and I enjoy reading about them very much. The tales of Arthur and his knights of the round table riding about in full and shining armour are of course a total nonsense and a more or less modern day depiction of Arthur. Suits of armour were not even invented until several hundred years after Arthur's death, if indeed he existed at all. But if he did it would be more around the time in which the Winter King is set.

Mr. Cornwell puts a more realistic slant on the existence of Arthur in or around the sixth century, and the author himself believes that Arthur was some sort of war chief rather than a king.

The book begins after the death of Uther Pendragon, an event that has left Britain in turmoil. Britain needs a strong hand to keep the squabbling tribes of Britain from one another's throats. Can he hold Uther's throne for the infant heir . . .
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on 30 May 2006
This is the first of a trilogy on Arthur written from the perspective of one of his loyal oath bound warriors. This is the best Cornwell I have read, so if you like the Heretic series or Sharpe I think you will love this. Cornwell really fleshes the characters out in this trilogy. It is written in the fiction history style and whilst we know little of the 'real' Arthur Cornwell does well to fill in the numerous gaps to provide a credible possible story. Also the back drop of the crumbling of Roman provincial rule after 400-500 years and the effects on Britain are fascinating.
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on 28 September 2002
I havent enjoyed reading a book this much since GATES OF FIRE. I must say every book seems to fall short of GATES OF FIRE but this did lose with a fight. It is the genre i adore - historical fiction with all the necessary ingredients. I was immediately engulfed in this story, much helped by the way Cornwell writes: colourful, detailed but not over-aloborate and still down to earth and very understandable. You dont need to go back and read a paragraph three times over to get the story. This book is definitely a MUST for whoever loves historical fictions encrusted with war, love, betrayal, politics, magic, religion conflics and more... As accredited on the back cover of the book by THE TIMES - 'Spellbinding realism' really describes the story well.
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